The nonprofit has been providing services to the developmentally disabled in North County for half a decade

ATASCADERO — Escuela del Rio celebrated 50 years in Atascadero on Wednesday, June 26, with an open house at its headquarters from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Started with an idea and drive to benefit underserved members of the community, the nonprofit was created in June 1974 and has been serving the North County’s developmentally disabled community ever since.

“It’s fun to see the different faces that you’ve seen long ago, and you’ve watched them grow. We’ve had one of our individuals, who has retired; he’s come back because it’s our 50th,” said Escuela del Rio Executive Director Debbie Argano.

Argano, who took over for the original executive director, Sherry Fontan, has been part of the nonprofit for close to 28 years, added that it’s amazing to see the loyalty and the family atmosphere that they’ve been able to create with everyone whose lives they touch.


“That’s what we strive for, families. We’re just one giant family,” she continued.

Escuela del Rio 50 Christianna Marks 1
(From left) Executive Director Debbie Argano, Jim Kelleher, and Teddi Gafner at the Escuela del Rio open house on June 26. Photo by Christianna Marks

The open house highlighted all four of Escuela del Rio’s programs: Escuela del Rio’s Toward Independence Program (EdR-TIP), Escuela del Rio Specialized Teaching and Readiness Program (EdR-START), Escuela del Rio-Core, and Escuela del Rio — Seniors.

“I think you have to care about the people who work for you and the people you do work for, because that is the most important thing in our business. We’re a people serving business,” stated Argano. “We’re able to teach, guide, and laugh and giggle and I guarantee you, 90 percent of the time you go home with a smile on your face. You always start with a smile and you go home with a smile.”

The room also displayed the papier-mache creations made by everyone in the programs that have covered the nonprofit’s floats yearly at the Colony Days parade.

“All of this is a true reflection of the spirit of Escuela del Rio,” said Teddi Gafner, who’s been part of Escuela del Rio for 49 of its 50 years. “It’s joy, it’s happiness, it’s growth, and people relating and feeling good about each other.”

Currently, Escuela del Rio is serving 92 clients throughout the North County. Each person is in the perfect program that matches with their varying abilities and life-skill needs. And from the smiles, laughter, and love that filled up Escuela del Rio during the open house, you can tell that the teamwork between staff and the people they serve is a beautufulthing.

“The town of Atascadero has always been supportive of Escuela del Rio,” Argano added. “Between the town of Atascadero, there’s wonderful families and the individuals and the businesses. I think together they’ve helped Escuela del Rio grow.”

Escuela del Rio works with Tri-Counties Regional Center and all programs require everyone applying to be 18 and over and diagnosed as developmentally disabled. The programs offered help those with differing abilities find alternatives and choices for getting out in society and becoming a part of our thriving community.

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Feature Image:  (From left) Shannon Jackson, Marbella Lizarraga, and Miriam Lizarraga stand at the EdR-START booth, with some of the art projects created by the program’s clients. Photo by Christianna Marks